Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer at an internet-search giant, wins a competition to spend a week at the private mountain estate of the company’s brilliant and reclusive CEO, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac).
Upon his arrival, Caleb learns that Nathan has chosen him to be the human component in a Turing Test-charging him with evaluating the capabilities, and ultimately the consciousness, of Nathan’s latest experiment in artificial intelligence.
That experiment is Ava (Alicia Vikander), a breathtaking A.I. whose emotional intelligence proves more sophisticated — and more deceptive — than the two men could have imagined.
Ex Machina 8.25
eyelights: the fascinating premise. the setting. the sustained intrigue.
eyesores: the discrepancy of the scientist’s personality. the resolution.
“One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa.”
Let’s say you won a lottery that allowed you to work with a legend, someone whom you respected highly. Surely you’d be thrilled. But what if you were taken to a mysterious location, under mysterious circumstances, with little prior information and no way to contact the outside world? Would you do it then? What if you found yourself virtually trapped inside that location and were monitored 24/7? Would you still do it then? Would you?
If so, then where would you draw the line?
Such is the setting of ‘Ex Machina’, which finds Caleb airlifted via helicopter to an isolated home in Norway to work with the computer genius who invented Bluebook, the film’s equivalent of Google. There he is screened against his will, given an ID pass that only provides him access to certain areas of the facility, and meets his idol, Nathan, who offers him the opportunity to assist him in his research – but only after signing some legally questionable release forms.
The trade off: for a week, Caleb will now get to interact with Nathan’s latest project, Ava, a robot with the latest in artificial intelligence software. Filled with ambition, Caleb signs his life away, allowing Nathan to monitor him everywhere upon his release to ensure that Ava’s secrets aren’t revealed. But he soon realizes that the brutish Nathan is withholding information from him. And, even more disquieting, Nathan gets drunk almost every night, passing out for hours.
Caleb is alone. In isolation. Trapped underground.
His only other contact is with Ava. Every day, Caleb meets with her in her quarters, separated from her by shatter-proof glass (she has even less freedom than he does!). The purpose of his interactions is to establish whether or not Ava should be considered human. Through their discussions he gathers information about her state of being, later relaying the information and his interpretations to Nathan, who is recording and monitoring everything that takes place.
Beyond the question of whether or not the A.I. is well-conceived, there’s an aura of mystery around the experiment. One gets the impression that Nathan doesn’t appear competent enough to run it. Confident, yes. Megalomanical, certainly. Competent? Not quite. His behaviour is outright strange, right from at the onset: he doesn’t greet Caleb or send anyone in his stead. Then there are disturbing outbursts of rage, which suggest instability and potential violence.
Then there is the alcoholism, which basically puts him out of commission for half a day (i.e. the hours of drinking, plus the extended time he spends passed out). This is not the behaviour of a control freak scientist. If anything, he’s a liability to a project such as this one. So who is really behind it? And what are they really trying to establish? Why all the lies and secrets concealed in friendliness, in this strange buddy-buddy vibe that Nathan tries to sustain?
What is going on down there, in that facility? And where would it all lead to?
‘Ex Machina’ gripped me. I had seen really good ratings for it, and proceeded to the cinema with some friends with little information to go by; I felt it would be the type of movie that should speak for itself. I sat there fixated for most of the picture, which is perfectly carried by the cast of four (Nathan has a servant in his home). My mind reeled at the off-putting tone that was established, what with the level of vulnerability that Caleb was subjected to.
I was mentally alert throughout, waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for new revelations to surge forth. But, while “Ex Machina’ reveals its secret, it does so in dime-sized drops. Meanwhile, we are left hanging. First time director Alex Garland (who also wrote the script and, impressively, the ones for ’28 Days Later’, ‘Sunshine‘, ’28 Weeks Later’, ‘Never Let Me Go‘ and ‘Dredd‘) was calculating if not surgical in the way that he built up the tension.
Naturally, he was helped out by his terrific cast, without whom the picture would have caved in. Domhnall Gleeson is entirely credible as Caleb, who is intellectually and emotionally intelligent; Gleeson transitions him adeptly from fanboy to adversary. Oscar Isaac, meanwhile, is discreetly threatening as Nathan: he is as physically imposing as he is intellectually. But it’s the eyes that leave an imprint, the way he tries to look into and through Caleb.
Meanwhile there is Alicia Vikander as Ava. She made me think of Natalie Portman in many ways, not just physically, but in her delivery, when Portman is more reserved. Ava may be A.I., but she is still machine, and her emotional range appears to be limited. At least for now. Which doesn’t mean that she doesn’t feel and doesn’t act on these feelings. Vikander did a terrific job of giving her subtlety, allowing us to believe in her behaviour by the picture’s end.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
And this is where I was a little less pleased with ‘Ex Machina’.
Because I felt that Nathan didn’t seem competent, too “human” for the cerebral genius he is claimed to be (I mean, seriously, how could he focus on his work, being an alcoholic the way he is?), I was sure that Ava was merely a decoy. I was confident that Nathan was the A.I. being tested and that he, Caleb and the audience were meant to believe that he was real. While Caleb was focused on Ava, his interactions with Nathan would be more real, more normal, less clinical.
In my version of this film, his assistant, Kyoko, who was seen looking on eerily, was the one monitoring the situation, not Nathan. Whether she was the actual real “Nathan” or just a robotic spy was unclear to me, but I was looking forward to the answers. And so it was that I was rather disappointed to find out that Nathan was real, and that the experiment was so straight forward. To me, the few secrets that were later revealed paled in comparison to this deception.
Then there was the actual ending, which had Ava trapping the two men and escaping the facility. I liked that the growing sense of paranoia that pervades ‘Ex Machina’ culminates with the powerlessness of humanity when the machines we depend on turn on us – whether directly, as Ava does here, or throughout the picture when there are power or signal outages, leaving the two men incarcerated in their rooms. This is a very real threat that our modern world faces.
Not that we discuss such matters, let alone make contingency plans.
What I didn’t like about the ending was that it didn’t feel satisfying to me. Ava merely kills Nathan and leaves Caleb trapped in the compound as she escapes. To start with, I don’t think that death is always the most satisfying revenge. Then I hated the fact that Caleb was left behind to rot. The latter feels more real, contextually, but I couldn’t stand the double-disappointment (three, if you consider the fact that I wanted Nathan to be the actual A.I.).
I would have been happier with one of two alternative:
First alternate ending: After Ava’s escape, Nathan and Caleb are trapped in the compound, without power and each on a side of a closed, transparent door. They are trapped together, but are unable to help each other. This would mirror the imprisonment that Ava experienced for so long and would ultimately be rather fitting.
Second alternate ending: My favourite scenario would have been that, after Nathan is stabbed a second time, he doesn’t stop walking to succumb to his wounds. Instead he would carry on and would realize, at the same time as we do, that he was an A.I. all along – we soon find out that he was the one that was being tested and why.
But it was not to be.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
Still, even though I was left unsatisfied, I liked that Alex Garland brought to the fore a certain distrust of technology, showing how it can fail us, leaving us extremely vulnerable. He took it to another extreme by showing that, as we create the next step in evolution, we believe ourselves omnipotent, forget that once loosed upon the world we lose our control over our own creations. Not only can they fail us, they can escape us, they can even destroy us.
Just as the things that we put in place to secure us can sometimes trap us.
‘Ex Machina’ is enigmatic. It’s a science fiction film that prefers to explore mood than special effects, that is character, not action, based, that takes the audience to its core, instead of using the core as a gravitational pull for all manners of other distractions. ‘Ex Machina’ is cerebral, not visceral, which means that it will likely not find a large audience. But the audience it will find will be utterly impressed with it – as recent reviews seem to attest.
It’s a picture worth discovering and discussing – just as the best sci-fi should be.
Date of viewing: May 8, 2015